Can you hear me now?
One day this week I was talking with Serge. Well, that’s not quite right. He called me, and he was talking, and I could hear him. And I was talking—but he couldn’t hear me. It went like this:
Me: Yes, hello.
Me: Yes, it’s me. Hello.
Serge: Can you hear me?
Me: Yes, I can hear you.
Me: Hello, I can hear you.
Serge: I can’t hear you.
Me: What phone are you on?
Serge, muttering: What phone is she on?
What’s going on here? This is so stupid. *click*
This conversation was repeated four times over the next hour, more or less verbatim, with me on four different telephones and four different phone lines: two at the church, one at the parsonage, plus my cell phone. Apparently Serge was so convinced that I was the problem that he didn’t bother to change phones. Later in the day, when he also couldn’t hear his boss when he called, Serge began to think that there might be a problem on his end. Turns out his headset was fried. (I am happy to report that he apologized for thinking I was an idiot.)
I was reflecting on this scenario, though, and I realized that a lot of my conversations with God go something like this as well—only I’m the one with the broken headset. I call up God, and God answers, but then I can’t hear a word God says. It might be because I’m doing all the talking—or that might just be the beginning of the problem.
I’m learning from the younger generation: I might be reading my email, following Facebook, updating the church website, reading the New York Times, writing my blog, researching my sermon, checking the weather, talking on the phone, checking things off my multiple to-do lists, and having a snack, all at the same time. Jesus could be in the room jumping up and down and waving and I wouldn’t know it. Or sometimes I can’t hear God because I’ve simply got my headset tuned to the all-fretting-all-the-time station.
But when I do stuff like this, I’m not acting like a sheep. And when I am not a sheep, I can’t hear the shepherd. Sheep listen to the shepherd and go where they are led and eat what’s in front of them and go to sleep when they’re tired. Sheep don’t worry about anything. Sheep trust the shepherd to lead them to green pastures and good water. Have you ever watched sheep? They don’t do fourteen things at once. Jesus says,
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Today’s scripture reading is part of a long section in which Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and a shepherd. Jesus is responding to some Jewish leaders who have been challenging his words and his actions. This controversy begins when Jesus heals a blind man on a Sabbath. This upsets the religious leaders, who figure that the man had been blind his whole life—why break a religious law to heal him? Why not wait a day?
Jesus’ response infuriates them. He says that he is like a good shepherd, who knows the sheep and cares for them—doing not what is comfortable for the shepherd, but what is good for the sheep. On the other hand, he compares the religious leaders with thieves, who steal the sheep away, and with hired hands, who run away as soon as there is any trouble or threat. You are probably not surprised that the leaders are offended by this.
But the people who hear Jesus talking about this are divided. Some say, “He’s crazy. He’s got a demon.” Others say, “But look—he healed this guy who’s been blind his whole life. And he doesn’t sound crazy to me.”
In today’s passage Jesus talks about that divide. Why do some people think he’s crazy, and some people think he’s the Messiah? The crowd asks him to just tell them plainly what he’s up to.
25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
Jesus says, “Look at what I have been doing, and you will know the answer to your question.” What has he done? So far, in the gospel according to John, Jesus turns water into wine at a party—where there wasn’t enough, suddenly there is abundantly more than is even needed. He speaks with authority in the temple, calling the temple his Father’s house and throwing out the people who were using it to make money. He speaks to people that “good Jews” don’t speak to, and has dinner with people that “good Jews” won’t sit with. He heals a Roman official’s son, a paralyzed man, and a blind man. He feeds five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish that a little boy gives him. He walks on water across the sea. He explains all this by saying that he is the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd—one with his Father, God.
Some people look at these things Jesus does, and they see a big-time troublemaker, someone who threatens their understanding of the world, their place in society, even their job. Others look at these things Jesus does and see a crazy man, trying to change things that can’t be changed. Some look at these things Jesus does and think they’re impossible, and somebody with a good imagination, who likes stories, just made them up.
And some people looking at this evidence conclude that Jesus is the Messiah. Like sheep, they just follow him. They do two things—they hear the Shepherd’s voice, and they follow where he leads.
Those reactions are still true. Some people think that Jesus and his followers are troublemakers. Some think the whole thing is impossible, and somebody made it up to manipulate people into doing what they want. Some think Jesus and his followers are crazy, or worse. Certainly the church does not have a sterling reputation in society right now. I dread the front page of the News Times, where it seems that at least once a week someone associated with a church is accused of something horrible. But some people hear the voice of their shepherd, and do their best to follow where he leads.
How about you? Do you want to be one of Jesus’ sheep? Can you hear him calling? Do you want to follow?
Especially now, right here in our community, when many people do not hold the church in high regard, it can be really hard to follow faithfully. The world has changed—“everybody” doesn’t go to church any more. We can’t assume that people “out there” know what we’re doing in here, or what our customs are, or what we believe. They don’t know that you’re “supposed” to dress a certain way. They have never learned our prayers, they don’t know what a psalter is, they’ve never heard of Advent or Lent, and they don’t walk around humming our songs. If they think about us at all, they mostly assume that we’ve got nothing better to do—and that we want their money.
When we go out into the world—or when the world comes to us, using our building or attending our events—we are the face and voice and hands and feet of Christ. A lot of people draw their conclusions about Christians, and about Christ, based on what they see in us. If we are kind and generous; if we respond to an insult with a blessing; if our peace and joy are apparent—then people get curious. They start to wonder whether there’s really something to all that Jesus stuff after all.
It has been said that “the only Bible many people will ever read…is you.” What I’m sure of is this: the first Bible people read is you. Before they ever set foot in a worship service, hear a sermon, or sing a hymn, people have already learned a lot about how we practice our faith…from you.
Yes, life is better for us when we listen to the shepherd and follow where he leads. There’s a reason why Psalm 23 is the favorite of so many people:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
But there’s more to it than that. We are called to share that provision, that joy, that peace with others. “The only Bible some people will ever read is you.” When people read you, what do they learn about Jesus?